In these fraught times, what does a speaker say to college graduates wearing their tasseled mortarboard hats? The truth.
Most college graduates have been told once too often that they are the hope of the world ... that they have very bright futures ... that the rest of us depend on them.
What they may not have been told — and surely should be told — is that their freedom to live lives of meaning is no certain thing.
Wherever they look, authoritarians would like to assert control over their citizens. Vladimir Putin in Russia controls the media with cold calculation. President Erdogan in Turkey put down a coup and immediately seized control of all the media to stop the dissent.
Try to interview Egyptians, now ruled by a military strongman, and you will find they are afraid that Big Brother is listening. Freedom of the press and of speech — just empty words in China.
Authoritarians who seize control of the communications systems in their countries —or belittle those whose job it is to inform the public — tend to stay in power. But they hold on because they don’t tolerate free elections or free speech.
What I told graduates at Mercer University last week was summed up in just five words: Democracy dies in the dark.
Those five words are not original with me. Trying to find the author is not easy. They may have been formed into a sentence by Bob Woodward, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post.
If it wasn’t him, good for whoever succinctly formed the thought.
We have begun to talk about free speech and a free press with some urgency in the United States. Sen. John McCain says frequently. “The first thing dictators do is shut down the press.”
CBS News anchor Scott Pelley says it another way: “The quickest, most direct way to ruin a democracy is to poison the information.”
And so we now come to fake news, which we hear so much about these days. Speaking to the Mercer graduates, I told them the university had given them the tools to spot “alternative facts” or fake headlines. Common sense will spy most of the fakery with just a little thought.
If they are like me, they already have computers full of totally untrue emails forwarded to them by someone who should know better than to peddle such trash.
Bogus columns that people claim to have found in reputable newspapers ... eyewitness accounts of events that never happened ... authoritative judgments that are just imaginative musings about public affairs.
The most irritating of them always end with something like this: “If you are an American, you will forward this to five friends. If you don’t forward it, why don’t you leave the country?”
I told the students, “It doesn’t matter to me whether your politics are liberal or conservative, alt-right or alt-left. That is your prerogative. But I care a great deal about the freedoms that will help you make this a better nation.
“If you want to make a county commissioner or a mayor happy, I will tell you exactly how. Promise him or her that there will never be a nosy reporter poking around to see whether that contract is legitimate or that campaign contribution is in fact a bribe.
“In a lifetime of reporting and editing on paper and on the air, I can tell you that most politicians are honest. But I also can tell you that a lot of them are honest because they don’t want to be exposed on the front page of the hometown newspaper. Countless men and women in public office have stayed honest because of media watchdogs.”
Did the students hear or believe me? I don’t know. They at least were quiet and respectful, which in itself is unusual in this age of campus unrest over the choice of speakers. All too often, ideology wins out over freedom. Too many people have been driven off campuses this spring.
What I hope they paid most attention to was my reading of the First Amendment to the Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Democracy dies in the dark.
Reg Murphy is a former
publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and the Baltimore Sun. To contact the him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.